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Two Bright Spots in a Dull Year for Rock en Espanol

September 03, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

The rock en espanol movement hasn't exactly been blessed lately by the winds of good fortune.

Last year's release of Cafe Tacuba's masterful "Reves/Yosoy" by a mainstream U.S. label (Warner Bros.) was heralded by critics as a breakthrough creatively, but the album was a commercial disappointment. It sold fewer than 20,000 copies in the U.S.

A second problem has been the lack of quality Latin rock releases during the first eight months of this year.

Then came Watcha, a multi-city tour that was meant to seduce mainstream U.S. listeners into embracing Latin rock's quirky vision and talented performers. What the audience got in the opening tour date at the Univesal Amphitheatre, though, was a poorly designed concert that offered few innovative acts.

But fans shouldn't despair quite yet--there's a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the form of two albums due on Sept. 12.

Both "Bueninvento" by Mexico's Julieta Venegas (BMG Latin) and "Arepa 3000" by Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles (Luaka Bop) are indispensable collections, showcasing a lightness of spirit and sense of humor that are precisely what the field needs.

Venegas sounds like a Latin American cross between PJ Harvey and Fiona Apple. At age 29, the Tijuana native and Mexico City resident emerges as one of the most creative voices in Latin music, with a set of mostly original songs that combine the offbeat sensibility of alternative rock with the melodic flair of commercial pop.

"I jokingly say that I'm a pop girl, but it's partially true," the singer says. "I love the Beach Boys. I think the distinction that people make between rock and pop is weird." Venegas enjoys the best of both worlds. Her ability to come up with a seemingly endless array of hooks puts her in the middle of the pop universe, but her arty arrangements and impressionistic poetry give her a rock credibility.

Most important, the record follows its own muse, blissfully ignoring the trends of the moment. Searching for a "fat, full sound," Venegas enriches her compositions with waves of organ and distorted accordion, switching between drum machines and real drums, and bringing an impassioned vocal delivery to it all.

One of the collection's strongest songs is a version of Juan Gabriel's 1978 hit "Siempre en mi mente." Whereas the original version by Mexico's favorite sentimental composer was all about sorrow and pent-up feelings, Venegas liberates the tune from its restraints, offering a furiously over-the-top reading that transforms it into a declaration of independence.

"My mom has been listening to his stuff since I was a little girl," she explains. "I think of him as the Mexican equivalent of Prince. His version of [this song] was so controlled that I just wanted to set it free."

Unlike "Bueninvento," Los Amigos Invisibles' "Arepa 3000" is not a work of art. But it is a fun-filled, exhilarating party album.

After the release of the critically well-received "The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera" in 1998, Los Amigos was faced with a daunting challenge: to record a follow-up that could offer more of the band's "disco-meets-lounge" aesthetic without repeating itself.

Proving their creativity goes beyond sexually explicit lyrics and funk cliches, they used their studio time wisely, loading the new material with intriguing hints of electronica, light touches of crystalline keyboards and a textural approach that is deep and sophisticated.

Lyrically, the group expands on the sexual shenanigans it's famous for, but conservative listeners should not be offended. At the core of Los Amigos' musical stew is an endearing idealization of carnal love and an underlying air of melancholy sweetness, as if they realize that both funk and lust are ephemeral.

WATCHA GONNA DO?: Why was Watcha Tour such a mediocre concert? Is there a way to offer a better show next year?

You bet. The new Amigos and Venegas albums give ample proof that rock en espanol still has a lot to say. This year's festival failed because of unimaginative booking and poor time-management issues.

The show's biggest problem was that all the acts performing in the first half of the six-hour event sounded virtually identical. By focusing on the more aggressive side of Latin rock, Watcha became a Rage Against the Machine sound-alike contest instead of balancing the show with some lighter-sounding party bands.

It appears that in the organizers' bid to emulate the huge hard-rock festivals on the Anglo side of the fence, they forgot about the wider range of Latin rock.

By the time Cafe Tacuba, by far the best act in the lineup, closed the overlong proceedings, its performance had minimal impact on the audience. If the idea behind this tour is to introduce Anglo audiences to this music, why not design a healthy four-hour show with four acts playing an hour each?

This is still a young movement with a short list of outstanding performers to choose from. An ideal package could have included Tacuba and Aterciopelados, who both performed, along with Fabulosos Cadillacs and El Gran Silencio. Another winning combination: Motolov and Tacuba, who both appeared, together with Amigos Invisibles and Bloque.

The time will come when there's space to break new acts and allow the lesser bands to flex their musical muscle in front of a big audience. For now, however, rock en espanol should focus on the few brilliant acts it has to offer. *

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